Following are excerpts of Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) speech [RCP Transcript: John McCain's Acceptance Speech, September 04, 2008] in which he accepted the Republican Party's nomination for president:
Finally, a word to Senator Obama and his supporters. We'll go at it over the next two months. That's the nature of these contests, and there are big differences between us. But you have my respect and admiration. Despite our differences, much more unites us than divides us. We are fellow Americans, an association that means more to me than any other. We're dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal and endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights. No country ever had a greater cause than that. And I wouldn't be an American worthy of the name if I didn't honor Senator Obama and his supporters for their achievement.
Comment: McCain is making a call to unify the country, saying that "more unites us than divides us". He says he respects his opponents, and insists they're dedicated to the same goal as he is. But he doesn't give specifics on what this sense of respect implies about how we should treat one another, particularly when debating moral and political issues.
And let me offer an advance warning to the old, big spending, do nothing, me first, country second Washington crowd: change is coming.
Comment: Who is McCain referring to? Is he saying that those in Washington who "do nothing" (somehow at the same time as they engage in "big spending"?) are people who put themselves ahead of their country? Who is McCain describing?
McCain doesn't name names. But it seems odd that he would be referring to "Obama and his supporters", since he just got done calling them "fellow Americans", affirming his "respect and admiration" for them while insisting that "much more unites us than divides us". It would be contradictory for him to say all these praiseworthy things about a "me first, country second" crowd.
So, if he's not referring to "Obama and his supporters" -- which I interpret to mean Democrats -- who IS he talking about? Or is he just contradicting himself, laying praise on Democrats in on paragraph and then calling them selfish in another?
Does McCain think that anyone who opposes his policies is putting themselves ahead of their country?
In any case, how do these comments figure in to any ideas about uniting the country?
You know, I've been called a maverick; someone who marches to the beat of his own drum. Sometimes it's meant as a compliment and sometimes it's not. What it really means is I understand who I work for. I don't work for a party. I don't work for a special interest. I don't work for myself. I work for you.
Comment: As politicians so often do, McCain is deriding what he calls "special interest" groups. But, as politicians so often don't, he doesn't spell out what they are, or why they're bad.
He also mentions his status as a "maverick". He's correct to say that sometimes people use that word to praise him, and sometimes to criticize him. Certainly, it's far from clear that being a maverick -- that is, someone who acts independently of a particular group -- is necessarily good or bad. Sometimes the group is doing something bad, in which case being a maverick would be good. Other times, the group is doing something good, in which case being a maverick is bad.
McCain, though, insists on defining the word in terms of whether a person works for the people. He says that "special interests" don't work for the people, but -- again -- doesn't defend that claim.
We believe in a strong defense, work, faith, service, a culture of life, personal responsibility, the rule of law, and judges who dispense justice impartially and don't legislate from the bench. We believe in the values of families, neighborhoods and communities. We believe in a government that unleashes the creativity and initiative of Americans. Government that doesn't make your choices for you, but works to make sure you have more choices to make for yourself.
Comment: This is just a caricature that serves to demonize McCain's opponents. Does he mean to say that Democrats DON'T believe in work, service, the rule of law, the values of families, etc.? Granted, McCain and Democrats are going to disagree on several matters of policy, but it's a distortion for him to suggest that those policy differences are a result of Republicans caring about, say, judges who dispense justice impartially, and Democrats NOT caring about that.
My opponent promises to bring back old jobs by wishing away the global economy.
Comment: This is a caricature. Obama has never suggested that the U.S. should act as if there's no global economy, let alone promised to do this as a way of bringing back jobs that have been lost to globalization.
McCain and Obama have significant disagreements on what to do about lost jobs, and how the U.S. should approach the global economy (e.g., NAFTA and other trade agreements). But Obama has never said anything that could fairly be interpreted as "wishing away" the global economy, as if such a thing were even possible.
McCain's caricature is an attempt to make Obama appear hopelessly naive and out of touch with reality.
Senator Obama wants our schools to answer to unions and entrenched bureaucracies. I want schools to answer to parents and students.
Comment: This is another caricature. Both Democrats and Republicans want schools to satisfy the needs of parents and students. They have substantive -- and legitimate -- differences of opinion about whether teacher's unions and school bureaucracies are a benefit or a hindrance to satisfying those needs. But that's different from saying that Obama (and, I assume, other Democrats) only want to satisfy unions and bureaucracies, even at the expense of parents and students.
McCain's caricature serves to demonize Obama as not caring about students and parents.
The constant partisan rancor that stops us from solving these problems isn't a cause, it's a symptom. It's what happens when people go to Washington to work for themselves and not you.
Comment: Is this true? Are there no legitimate differences of opinion about what our moral priorities should be, or about what policies will bring about the results we seek? Are ALL conflicts in the political arena brought about because politicians who put themselves first clash with politicians who put the people first?
If McCain is right, then there's no such thing as a legitimate moral dilemma: there's only selfishness versus altruism.
(Remember, McCain earlier in his speech said to his opponents that "there are big differences between us. But you have my respect and admiration". He even said he and his opponents are united in their ideals. How could that be, if these differences boil down to "those who work for themselves" versus "those who work for the people"?)
But there ARE legitimate moral dilemmas, contrary to what McCain implies. Though he is correct that there is a needless amount of "partisan rancor" in the political arena, the way to solve it is not to falsely depict every political conflict as being between selfishness and altruism.
Instead, our politicians -- McCain, Obama, Biden and Palin included -- need to learn how to engage in civil debate.